Senate Democrats on Wednesday introduced a sweeping bill aimed at combating climate change, pushing forward with President Obama's call to tackle global warming even though Congress is waist-deep in debate over health care reform.
Majority Leader Harry Reid has expressed doubt that the Senate will be able to take up the legislation this year, after the House passed its version earlier in the session. It appears unlikely that a bill will clear both chambers before a world environmental conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.
"This is the beginning of one of the most important battles we will ever face as legislators and citizens," Kerry said.
"This is our time. Global warming is our challenge. Economic recovery is our challenge," said Boxer, chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, linking the climate legislation to economic growth.
The Senate draft specifies a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions beginning in three years, to be tightened annually so that emissions would be 20 percent lower in 2020 than they were in 2005. Emissions would have to be 80 percent lower by 2050. While the long-term cuts are the same as required by the House in June, the Senate bill would require a faster ramp-up, which many in industry had wanted to avoid. The House would establish a 17 percent emission cut by 2020. Obama originally sought a cut of only 14 percent.
The draft includes a cap-and-trade system that would require power plants, industrial facilities and refineries to cut carbon dioxide and other climate-changing pollution -- or pay a price. It does not lay out how emission allowances would be distributed, leaving that for later.
An overview of the bill says it would only apply to the nation's largest polluters and leave out about 98 percent of U.S. businesses, including farmers.
President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued brief statements Wednesday praising the proposal. Obama said he's "deeply committed" to passing such a bill.
But House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, condemned the package as a "national energy tax," citing estimates that the changes could cost families hundreds of dollars through increased energy costs.
"Instead of coming to their senses and scrapping this dangerous proposal, Democrats are pressing ahead, proving once again that they just don't get it," Boehner said in a statement.
Almost all Republicans have voiced strong opposition to cap-and-trade climate legislation. They consider it a massive energy tax on consumers as energy prices increase amid the shift away from fossil fuels. Many centrist Democrats, especially those from rural areas and from states with energy-intensive industries, have also expressed reluctance to support any bill that does not protect against energy cost spikes and protect domestic industries.
Kerry acknowledged the resistance to the legislation, referencing the fight over health care reform.
"After the last few months, we know what's coming," he said, adding: "We can't afford not to act."
Obama has made global warming legislation a priority goal of his first term, ranking close to an overhaul of the health care system as must-do work. The United States opted out of the current agreement on controlling greenhouse gas emissions, signed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.
But the bill faces extended debate and revisions in the Senate, and even if passed before the Dec. 7-18 Copenhagen conference, differences between the Senate version and the House bill will have to be reconciled.
And the United States will continue to fall far short of expectations of most other developed countries.
The European Union is urging other rich countries to match its pledge of 20 percent emissions cuts by 2020 based on 1990 levels.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.